seth ackerman market socialism

“On Communism and Markets: A Reply to Seth Ackerman,” by Matthijs Krul

Apparently rejected by Jacobin, this was originally posted over at Krul’s Notes and Commentaries blog.

In his recent essay on Jacobin, Seth Ackerman makes a number of common arguments in favor of some form of market socialism over and against central planning as well as other designs for non-market, non-capitalist economies. The essay contains much that most socialists could agree with. He rightly cites the failure of the neoclassical argument for general equilibrium to apply in real-world situations under the devastating theoretical impact of the Cambridge capital critique and the so-called ‘theory of the second-best’, and the lack of statistical evidence proving the superior efficiency of market capitalist societies over those of the former Soviet bloc. The historical record of capitalism to achieve general efficiency, equity, and democracy is, in short, atrocious, and neoclassical economics always serves first and foremost as apologetics for this system – we probably need not go into this further.

Also understandable is Ackerman’s negative response to models of a post-capitalist economy along the lines of some form of direct democracy, such as Albert and Hahnel’s “Parecon” approach. For Albert and Hahnel, democratic councils would gather data from individuals regarding their preferences, debate these according to socialist and ecological norms, and process them into a planning system, which would regularly update its information according to the same political processes; all this in order to regulate production for human need. Ackerman is justifiably skeptical of the workability of this proposal, as it would require millions of political debates about millions of input-output processes from wildly divergent sources and for wildly divergent ends. If every aspect of the planning system would have to be truly democratic – in the sense of being up for immediate political input ‘from below’ – any system with more than a rudimentary division of labor would quickly come to a shuddering halt.

For Ackerman, this is proof of the validity of the so-called calculation problem, an old argument from liberal critics of Marxism (in particular the Austrian school of economics), alleging that it is a priori impossible for centrally planned economies of any kind to operate: only prices, the argument runs, are accurately able to convey the necessary decentralized and distributed information that makes up the relative exchange value of goods. Therefore, in any system seeking to replace prices (and by implication, profits) with some form of central management, there necessarily follows a shortage of information in the decision-making process in production and exchange, with the familiar results of shortages, gluts, famines, and failures of supply. Continue reading

Ivan Kudriashev, Construction of a Rectilinear Motion (1925)

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, II: Freedom to become

IMAGE: Ivan Kudriashev, Construction
of a Rectilinear Motion
(1925)

Continuing this metaphor, common to both Nietzsche and Marx, we might still ask: What is it, exactly, to which “old collapsing bourgeois society” is giving birth? Nietzsche saw two possibilities, depending on whether the self-overcoming of the present had been borne “[of] a desire for fixing, for immortalizing, for being, or rather [of] a desire for destruction, for change, for novelty, for future, for becoming.”  If the former, Nietzsche warned, the impulse is romantic and regressive, an attempt to return to the static existence of tradition.  “The desire for destruction, for change and for becoming,” by contrast, “can be the expression of an overflowing energy pregnant with the future.”[72]  Once more, the present’s pregnancy with the future is intimately bound up with the problem of conscience and self-becoming.  As Nietzsche indicated in The Gay Science: “What does your conscience say? — ‘You should become who you are.’”[73]  How is this accomplished? Through boundless negativity, through a fearless commitment to self-transformation, by embracing “the eternal joy in becoming, — the joy that includes even the eternal joy in negating…”[74]

In a similar fashion, Marx understood the bourgeois epoch to be characterized by perpetual flux, the annihilation of existing conditions to make way for those arising out of them: a ceaseless motion of becoming.  Materialist dialectic, by standing the doctrine of its Hegelian predecessor on its head, was no less negative or pitilessly destructive than its Nietzschean counterpart: “In accordance with the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything that is real dissolves to become the opposite proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.  But precisely therein lay the true significance and the revolutionary character of Hegelian philosophy, that it once and for all dealt the deathblow to the finality of all products of human thought and action.”[75]  Moreover, the concept of freedom was always understood by Marx as the freedom to become what one will be, rather than the ontological notion of freedom promulgated by romanticism and postmodernism as the freedom to be (e.g., a Jew or a Muslim, a sculptor or a painter, heterosexual or homosexual) what one already “is.”  Marx saw this possibility for self-becoming as grounded in the historical emergence of the capitalist mode of production, which, after establishing itself, reproduces the conditions of its own existence, as well as those conditions by which it might be superseded:

[Capitalism’s] presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions of its becoming — and hence could not spring from its action as capital — now appear as results of its own realization, reality, as posited by itnot as conditions of its arising, but as results of its presence.  It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather it is itself presupposed, proceeding from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth…This correct view [of its development] leads at the same time to the points at which the suspension of the present form of production relations gives signs of its becoming — foreshadowings of the future.  Just as, on one side, the pre-bourgeois phases appear as merely historical, suspended presuppositions, so do the contemporary conditions of production likewise appear as engaged in suspending themselves and hence also as positing the historic presuppositions for a new state of society.[76] Continue reading

Anti-Duhring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, I

Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality

Untitled.
Image: Anti-Dühring
and Anti-Christ

untitled2

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Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”

In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that draw inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (as in Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism),[48] “fundamentalism” (as in Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”),[49] or “theology” (as in Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology).[50] These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.

According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.”[51] Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.”[52] Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.[53]

To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo,[54] even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.”[55] (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.”[56] Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature. Continue reading

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch 1906)

Twilight of the idoloclast?

On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn

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[W]hat makes Nietzsche’s influence so un/canny is that there has never been adequate resistance from a real Left.

— Geoff Waite, Nietzsche’s Corps/e (1996)

Few thinkers have enjoyed such widespread appeal over the last forty years as Nietzsche.

— Peter Thomas, “Overman and
the Commune”
(2005)

Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.

— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the
Anti-Nietzsche?”
(2001)

If Nietzsche’s arguments could be said to have gone unchallenged during the second half of the twentieth century, as the above-cited authors suggest, the same cannot be said today. Beginning in the early 1990s, but then with increasing rapidity over the course of the last decade, a distinctly anti-Nietzschean consensus has formed — particularly on the Left. Recent years have witnessed a fresh spate of texts condemning both Nietzsche and his thought as irredeemably reactionary, and hence incompatible with any sort of emancipatory politics. Numerous authors have contributed to this shift in scholarly opinion. To wit: William Altman, Fredrick Appel, Malcolm Bull, Daniel Conway, Bruce Detwiler, Don Dombowsky, Ishay Landa, Domenico Losurdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on. Continue reading

Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche

Re­view: Mal­colm Bull,
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche (2011)

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Im­age: Pho­to­graph of
Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche (1882)
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On the Left’s re­cent anti-Ni­et­z­schean turn

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[W]hat makes Ni­et­z­sche’s in­flu­ence so un/canny is that there has nev­er been ad­equate res­ist­ance from a real Left.

— Geoff Waite, Ni­et­z­sche’s Corps/e (1996)

Few thinkers have en­joyed such wide­spread ap­peal over the last forty years as Ni­et­z­sche.

— Peter Thomas, “Over­man and
the Com­mune” (2005)

Op­posed to every­one, Ni­et­z­sche has met with re­mark­ably little op­pos­i­tion.

— Mal­colm Bull, “Where is the
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche?” (2001)

If Ni­et­z­sche’s ar­gu­ments could be said to have gone un­chal­lenged dur­ing the second half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, as the above-cited au­thors sug­gest, the same can­not be said today. Be­gin­ning in the early 1990s, but then with in­creas­ing rapid­ity over the course of the last dec­ade, a dis­tinctly anti-Ni­et­z­schean con­sensus has formed — par­tic­u­larly on the Left. Re­cent years have wit­nessed a fresh spate of texts con­demning both Ni­et­z­sche and his thought as ir­re­deem­ably re­ac­tion­ary, and hence in­com­pat­ible with any sort of eman­cip­at­ory polit­ics. Nu­mer­ous au­thors have con­trib­uted to this shift in schol­arly opin­ion. To wit: Wil­li­am Alt­man, Fre­drick Ap­pel, Mal­colm Bull, Daniel Con­way, Bruce De­twiler, Don Dom­bow­sky, Ishay Landa, Domen­ico Los­urdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on.

Even a curs­ory glance at these writ­ings, however, suf­fices to re­veal some of the deep fis­sures that run between them. A great meth­od­o­lo­gic­al het­ero­gen­eity in­forms their re­spect­ive ap­proaches. Bull, for ex­ample, in­sists that to over­come the se­duct­ive qual­ity of Ni­et­z­sche’s ideas it is vi­tal not to read like him (“read­ing for vic­tory”);1 Alt­man seems to be­lieve, in­versely, that in or­der to un­der­mine his per­vas­ive in­flu­ence, it is ne­ces­sary to write like him.2 The con­tent of their cri­ti­cisms is far from uni­vocal, either. One com­mon thread that unites them is Ni­et­z­sche’s no­tori­ous hos­til­ity to mod­ern demo­crat­ic ideals, but even then the points of em­phas­is are ex­tremely di­ver­gent. While some crit­ics of Ni­et­z­sche prefer to re­main with­in the realm of polit­ics prop­er, oth­ers re­gister his op­pos­i­tion to demo­cracy at the level of eth­ics or aes­thet­ics. Dom­bow­sky falls in­to the former of these camps, seek­ing to trace out — through a series of elab­or­ate and im­pres­sion­ist­ic in­fer­ences re­gard­ing the au­thor’s read­ing habits, a kind of bib­li­o­graph­ic­al “con­nect the dots” — the secret of “Ni­et­z­sche’s Ma­chiavel­lian dis­ciple­ship.”3 Us­ing a more eth­ic­al frame­work, writers like Con­way rather look “to il­lu­min­ate the…mor­al con­tent of his polit­ic­al teach­ings.”4 Con­versely, in his book Ni­et­z­sche Con­tra Demo­cracy, Ap­pel loc­ates Ni­et­z­sche’s anti-demo­crat­ic im­pulse as emer­ging out of his con­cern with artist­ic prac­tices, in the con­stru­al of “polit­ics as aes­thet­ic activ­ity.”5

But whatever dif­fer­ences may ex­ist in their in­ter­pret­a­tion of the man and his thought, one thing is cer­tain: the tide has turned de­cis­ively against Ni­et­z­sche on the Left of late. Not that this is an en­tirely un­wel­come de­vel­op­ment. The vogue of French Ni­et­z­schean­ism, from Ba­taille and Deleuze down through Der­rida and Fou­cault, has been every bit as tire­some as its vul­gar anti-Ni­et­z­schean coun­ter­part. In light of the re­cent re­valu­ation of Ni­et­z­sche’s philo­sophy, however, we find ourselves com­pelled to ask wheth­er the anti-Ni­et­z­schean turn of the last few years truly sig­nals an end to the sway his ideas have held over the Left. Are we to be fi­nally dis­ab­used of his “per­ni­cious” in­flu­ence? Is this per­haps the twi­light of the ido­lo­clast? Continue reading

Notes to “Twilight of the Idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”

Notes to Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turnMalcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche, Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche


[1] “Reading for victory is the way Nietzsche himself thought people ought to read.”  Bull, Malcolm.  Anti-Nietzsche.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2011).
[2] As Domenico Losurdo blurbs on the back of his book, “Altman…adopts Nietzsche’s own aphoristic genre in order to use it against him.”  Altman himself explains: “[T]he whole point of writing in Nietzsche’s own style was to demonstrate how much power over his readers he gains by plunging him into the midst of what may be a pathless ocean, confusing them as to their destination.”  Altman, William.  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich.  (Lexington Books.  New York, NY: 2012).  Pg. xi.  Later Altman admits, however, that “[t]his kind of writing presumes, of course, good readers.”  Ibid., pg. 181.
[3] Dombrowsky, Don.  Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics.  (Palgrave MacMillan.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 134.
[4] Conway, Daniel.  Nietzsche and the Political.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 119.
[5] Appel, Fredrick.  Nietzsche Contra Democracy.  (Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, NY: 1999).  Pg. 120.
[6] “[I]n uncovering Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy [they] reuse it.”  Bull, Anti-Nietzsche.  Pg. 32.
[7] Ibid., pg. 33.
[8] Ibid., passim, pgs. 35-38, 42, 47-48, 51, 74-76, 98, 100, 135, 139, 143.
……Indeed, Bull’s call to “read like a loser” grants to the essays in Anti-Nietzsche their hermeneutic integrity.  This formulation has since gone on to become one of the book’s most celebrated phrases, as well, charming reviewers from New Inquiry’s David Winters to Costica Bardigan of the Times Higher Education. Winters, David.  “Reading Like a Loser.”  New Inquiry.  (February 14, 2012).  Bardigan, Costica.  “Review of Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche.”  Times Higher Education.  (January 29, 2012).  Even longtime admirers of Nietzsche like T.J. Clark admit its interpretive power: “[N]o other critique of Nietzsche, and there have been many, conjures up the actual reader of Daybreak and The Case of Wagner so unnervingly.”  Clark, T.J.  “My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull.”  Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies.  (University of California Press.  Berkeley, CA: 2009).  Pg. 79. Continue reading

Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe's monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

Architecture: A social and political history since 1848

Ross Wolfe & Sammy Medina

Untitled.
Image: Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s monument
to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

untitled2.

What follows is an extended write-up of the Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century event submitted to the German magazine Phase II for possible translation and publication.

Victor Hugo once proclaimed the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in his Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, dead beyond recall; killed by the printed book.”[1] In drawing this analogy, Hugo was trying to make a broader point about the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in European history — traditions symbolized by the grandeur of the Gothic cathedral (“architecture”) and the vernacular of the delatinized Bible (“the printed book”), respectively. But Gutenberg’s invention carried a still-greater significance vis-à-vis architecture. It granted an almost infinite technical reproducibility to texts that had hitherto been manuscripts, copied out by hand. With the advent of lithography — and, shortly thereafter, photography — a similar process was set in motion in the proliferation of images. Music was conveyed through the grooves of the phonograph record, mediated and assembled from a hundred separate studio takes, and unmarred by the immediacy and accidence of live performances. Toward the fin-de-siècle, the Lumière brothers’ cinema reels captured the moving image, beaming light across the hushed theaters of Europe. More generally, the nineteenth century saw an across-the-board increase in the automation of industrial production, and a corresponding standardization and typification of the commercial articles (commodities) thereby produced. The arts, following the articles, were duly transformed along with them.

Architecture was a relative latecomer to this tendency toward standardization and industrialization. Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. But even when such modernizing measures were finally instituted, many of the field’s most innovative and technically reproducible designs were cordoned off from the realm of architecture proper, dismissed as works of mere “engineering.” With the opening of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating greater geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. “Art as model for action: this was the great guiding principle of the artistic uprising of the modern bourgeoisie, but at the same time it was the absolute that gave rise to new, irrepressible contradictions,” recounted the Italian Marxist Manfredo Tafuri, in his landmark 1969 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” “Life and art having proved antithetical, one had to seek either instruments of mediation…or ways by which art might pass into life, even at the cost of realizing Hegel’s prophecy of the death of art.”[2] Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in the realm of aesthetics the historical dynamism that the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. Aleksei Gan and the Bolshevik Constructivists declared uncompromising war on art (1922),[3] and the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield enthusiastically announced in 1920: “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!”[4]

The modernists’ historic project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War all the way up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Many joined the camp of international communism — such as the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, the French designer André Lurçat, and the Czech poet and architectural critic Karel Teige, as well as a whole host of Soviet architects and urbanists. Some fell into the more nondenominational Social-Democratic parties of Europe: planners like the Austrians Oskar Strnad, Josef Frank, and the anti-fascist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who oversaw the construction of Rotes Wien between 1918 and 1934, the famed German architects Ernst May (mastermind of the Neues Frankfurt settlement) and Ludwig Hilberseimer, and the Belgian socialist Victor Bourgeois, vice-president of CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne). Others joined an anti-bourgeois ideological tendency of a rather more barbaric political bent, like the modernist and ardent Mussolini supporter Giuseppe Terragni.

With the rising tide of fascism throughout Europe — first Italy, then Germany, Austria, and Spain — radical members of the international avant-garde were faced with the question of how (and, perhaps more importantly still, where) their architectural legacy might be preserved. A stark choice confronted them: Russia or America? “In the Old World — Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal,” observed the Soviet artist El Lissitzky, in a 1925 article on “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.” Despite America’s technological and economic superiority, however, Lissitzky suggested it lacked the revolutionary social and political base to adequately realize the modernists’ aims. He continued: “Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile…That is why they all follow the trend of events in [the Soviet Union] so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR.”[5] Indeed, not long thereafter, as if to confirm Lissitzky’s hunch, the celebrated German expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn recorded in a letter: “[The Bolsheviks] make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but…all the possibilities are here, as you know. But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.” Many of the proponents of modern architecture thus believed that the future lay somewhere between the glass and steel skyscrapers of New York and the revolutionary vanguardism of the Soviet project. Two years later, Mendelsohn exclaimed that “from buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis. Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia!”[6] The foremost representative of European modernism, Le Corbusier, concurred with this view: “Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed [universal harmony] to be. One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effectuality of the five-year Plan. Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.”[7] Corbusier did not at all exaggerate in making this claim. At the invitation of the Soviet government, European and American architects were drawn en masse to assist in the building of socialism.[8] Continue reading

Sigfried Giedion’s 1963 introduction to Space, Time, and Architecture

Confusion and Boredom

In the sixties a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion.  Everyone is aware of it.  Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go.  Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds.

A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?”  As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and — as an American architect expressed it — many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy.  This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center.

A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything. I have no doubt that this fashion born out of an inner uncertainty will soon be obsolete; but its effects can be rather dangerous, because of the worldwide influence of the United States.

Красная Москва (1990)

Красная Москва (1990)

We are still in the formation period of a new tradition, still at its beginning. In Architecture, You and Me I pointed out the difference between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century approach to architecture. There is a word we should refrain from using to describe contemporary architecture — “style.”  The moment we fence architecture within a notion of “style,” we open the door to a formalistic approach.  The contemporary movement is not a “style” in the nineteenth-century meaning of form characterization.  It is an approach to the life that slumbers unconsciously within all of us.

In architecture the word “style” has often been combined with the epithet “international,” though this epithet has never been accepted in Europe.  The term “international style” quickly became harmful, implying something hovering in mid-air, with no roots anywhere: cardboard architecture.  Contemporary architecture worthy of the name sees its main task as the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period.  There can be no question of “Death or Metamorphosis,” there can only be the question of evolving a new tradition, and many signs show that this is in the doing.

Panel event, 2.7.2013 at NYU — Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century

RUINS OF MODERNITY:

THE FAILURE OF REVOLUTIONARY ARCHITECTURE
IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Peter Eisenman ︱ Reinhold Martin  .,
Joan Ockman ︱ Bernard Tschumi

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Thursday
2.7.2013
7-10PM

NYU Kimmel Center
Room 802 Shorin Studio
60 Washington Square S.
New York, NY 10012

Visit the official event page.
Join the Facebook event page.
Download a stylized version of the event description.
A write-up of the event at ArchDaily.
A write-up of the event at the Center for Architecture in New York.
A write-up of the event at New York Architects in New York.
A write-up of the event in the English-language magazine Uncube in Germany.

“Let us not deceive ourselves,” Victor Hugo once advised, in his iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, and will never come to life again; it is destroyed by the power of the printed book.” Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. Even when measures toward modernization were finally instituted, many of the most innovative, technically reproducible designs were hived off from the realm of architecture proper as mere works of “engineering.” Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose within the field to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in aesthetics the historical dynamism the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!” announced the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield in 1920.

The modernists’ project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists now reneged on their prior commitment to spur on social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they instead accommodated themselves to the planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism,” he wrote, “but rather as décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.” Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight had already been stripped down to its barest formal elements. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, Reyner Banham thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”

Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book on Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis). Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly. But if postmodernism, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”? Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? — Or might it portend the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” writes Owen Hatherley, addressing the issue of “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?”

In light of these considerations, Platypus thus asks:

  1. Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history? Are we still — were we ever — postmodern?
  2. What social and political tasks yet remain unfulfilled, carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity? Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?
  3. How can architecture be responsibly practiced today? Is revolutionary architecture even possible?

This event is free and open to the public.

“Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century” is part of a larger series of panels and events centered around the theme of the death of art that will take place during the month of February 2013 in NYC.  The headlining event, focusing on visual arts and the Left, “Aging in the Afterlife: The Many Deaths of Art,” will take place February 23rd at the New School.  For info on other events in this series, please consult the website for further updates.

Featuring

Peter EisenmanPETER EISENMAN

Peter Eisenman is design principal of Eisenman Architects in New York. His current projects include the City of Culture of Galicia in Spain; a master plan for Pozzuoli, Italy, and a residential condominium in Milan.  His award-winning projects include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Ohio. In 2010, he received the international Wolf Prize in Architecture, and in 2004 the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his many books are Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 and Ten Canonical Buildings, 1950-2000, on the work of ten architects. He is also the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the Yale School of Architecture.

Reinhold MartinREINHOLD MARTIN

Reinhold Martin is Associate Professor of Architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the PhD program in architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is also a member of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Committee on Global Thought. Martin is a founding co-editor of the journal Grey Room and has published widely on the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. He is the author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (MIT Press, 2003), and Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010), as well as the co-author, with Kadambari Baxi, of Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Actar, 2007). Currently, he is working on two books: a history of the nineteenth century American university as a media complex, and a study of the contemporary city at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.

JOAN OCKMAN

Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.  Before this, she served as Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University from 1994 to 2008 and was a member of the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for over two decades. In addition to Columbia and Penn, she has also taught at Yale, Cornell, Graduate Center of City University of New York, and the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. She began her career at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, where she was an editor of the legendary Oppositions journal and was responsible for the Oppositions Books series.  Her most recent book is Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America. A twentieth-anniversary edition of her book Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology will appear in 2013.

BERNARD TSCHUMI

Bernard Tschumi is widely recognized as one of today’s foremost architects. In 1983, he won the prestigious competition for the Parc de La Villette. Since then, he has designed buildings such as the new Acropolis Museum; Le Fresnoy National Studio for the Contemporary Arts; the Vacheron-Constantin Headquarters; The Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center at the University of Cincinnati; and architecture schools in Marne-la-Vallée, France and Miami, Florida. Tschumi’s many books include the three-part Event-Cities series; The Manhattan Transcripts; and Architecture and Disjunction.  Tschumi was awarded France’s Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 1996 as well as numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is an international fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in England and a member of the Collège International de Philosophie and the Académie d’Architecture in France.

Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century, w/ Eisenman, Ockman, Martin, and Tschumi

Poster designed by Ross Wolfe

Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century, w/ Eisenman, Ockman, Martin, and Tschumi

Poster designed by Ross Wolfe.

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Poster designed by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan.